U.S. astronaut: We shouldn't be on the sidelines of space exploration

China's march into space
China's march into space

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Story highlights

  • China gave a warm welcome to U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao
  • He says the U.S. should cooperate with China in space
  • Otherwise, the U.S. risks losing its leadership in space exploration

Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005. During his 15-year career, he flew four missions into space, three times on Space Shuttles and once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both U.S. and Russian spacesuits, and has logged nearly 230 days in space. He was the first American astronaut to be given access to China's space program. The opinions expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)It was September 8, 2006.

My hosts picked me up from my Beijing hotel and we began the drive to the Astronaut Center of China (ACC).
As we approached the immaculately clean, walled complex, two young soldiers stood at attention, wearing the green uniform of the People's Liberation Army.
    I gazed at the gold-bordered red star insignia on their peaked caps in wonderment; I was about to become the first American to be allowed inside of these walls; the first U.S. astronaut to meet Yang Liwei -- their Yuri Gagarin.
    Leroy Chiao
    I was very excited in October of 2003, as I watched Yang become the first Chinese national to launch into space.
    I hold the distinction of being the first astronaut of Chinese heritage to perform a spacewalk and to command a space mission, but it was truly an extraordinary and historic event when China became only the third nation to launch astronauts into orbit.

    Common bond

    Because of my Chinese heritage and family history, I was especially interested in visiting the center, meeting their astronauts and learning more about the Chinese human spaceflight program.
    I knew that as fellow flyers, we would share a common bond, much like I felt with the Russian cosmonauts.
    As we drove into the ACC, I took note of several things.
    Well-manicured trees and grass line the clean sidewalks and streets. The buildings were all very new, with white walls. The facility was completed only in 1998.
    Conceptually, the ACC seemed to me a new and modern version of Russia's Star City. The center is self-contained with living quarters for all astronauts and employees, training center, research and development center and even manufacturing. About 1,000 people live and work at the ACC.
    We arrived at the training building where then-director Shanguang Chen and his deputies, as well as Yang and Fei Junlong -- the commander of China's second manned space mission -- gave me a warm greeting.
    I noted with amusement that Yang, Fei and I are all dressed in dark suits and maroon ties. Do all astronauts of Chinese heritage think and dress alike?
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    We talk for a while and Yang thanks me for the personal note and photo that I sent to him three years prior, congratulating him on his spaceflight. Yang and Fei were as thrilled as I was at our meeting. They complimented me on my experience in space and were particularly interested in what it was like to perform spacewalks.

    Rocket fuel?

    After a tour of the center, we proceeded to the cafeteria. Like all of the other buildings, it was spic and span. We continued into a private dining room. A male attendant dressed in a dark suit offered to take our coats, while two young women dressed in traditional red and gold embroidered Chinese cheongsam offered us our seats and drinks.
    The large round table had a bright red tablecloth along with traditional banquet settings. The ladies offered us Chinese mao tai liquor from white porcelain bottles.
    We collectively agreed that we didn't need to drink this rocket fuel so early in the day and settled on a surprisingly good Chinese red wine.
    Over a delicious lunch of delicacies such as thousand-year-old eggs, jellyfish and pig ears as well as more common dishes such as steamed fish and mandarin beef, I had the chance to talk more in depth with Yang and Fei.
    Both were quite keen on spaceflight and yearned to return to space, although Yang spoke with less certainty on this subject than Fei.
    I secretly suspected that since Yang is the Chinese equivalent of Yuri Gagarin or John Glenn, the leadership may be less likely to risk his life on another mission.

    Different dreams

    Yang and Fei have followed my career and had many questions. We compared notes on space and return adaptation, food and photography.
    Yang is mostly serious and reserved; he rarely smiles. I asked him about his biggest impression of space. He replied that he was most impressed with the fact that the Earth looks borderless from space.
    Fei is more animated. He is gregarious and quick with a smile. Fei was most impressed with the beauty of the Earth. We all agreed that the Earth is more beautiful than we had imagined, the colors more vivid and bright.
    Yang is from Liaoning province and Fei is from Suzhou, which is where my mother lived from the age of three to her teenage years.
    One interesting difference between us is the fact that neither Yang nor Fei dreamed of being astronauts as young boys, as I did.
    They explained that when they were growing up, China had no public intentions of developing a human spaceflight program.
    Thus, they dreamed only of flying and both joined the air force. Only later, did they jump at the chance to become astronauts.

    Gasp of surprise

    In the afternoon, I made a presentation of my ISS mission and everyone was impressed with the photographs of the Earth that I had shot.
    There is an audible gasp as I show a detailed photograph of the Chinese launch complex near Jiuquan, in the Gobi desert, which at that time was still somewhat secret. On his mission, Fei tells me that his camera equipment was rather crude, having only a fixed lens. His crew was not able to shoot such photos.
    The end of the day came quickly, and it was time to say goodbye. Dr. Chen presented me with several gifts, including a beautifully detailed model of the Shenzhou spacecraft.
    Fei presented me with a framed mission patch from his flight. They are wonderful gifts that I have treasured.
    Over the next several years, I would become friends with Dr. Chen, and had the opportunity to meet several other Chinese astronauts, including Zhai Zhigang, their first spacewalker.

    Space game

    As we drove away that day, I looked back at the center and realized that the world had changed forever.
    China was in the space game and they were in it for the long haul.
    Since that first visit, China has indeed made great strides in human spaceflight.
    They have successfully flown several missions to a small, crew-tended space module (Tiangong-1), demonstrating rendezvous and docking capability.
    They have developed spacesuits and performed their first spacewalk. China has flown their first two female astronauts.
    China plans to build, launch and operate its own space station, beginning in 2018.
    It is an open secret that they have ambitions to send astronauts to the Moon.

    NASA's role?

    In 2013, at an international space conference in Beijing, China openly courted the world's space agencies to work with it on its space station and future human spaceflight plans.
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    Most of the International Space Station (ISS) partners held meetings with their Chinese counterparts and were positive about working together in the future, including flying their astronauts aboard the future Chinese space station.
    What was the one space agency that was not officially allowed to hold bilateral meetings with the Chinese? NASA.
    If indeed we do end the ISS program in 2024, our partners will transition to cooperating with China. What will we be doing?
    What role does the U.S. intend to play in the world spaceflight arena? We have an opportunity now, to establish ourselves as the international leader of future human space exploration.
    By bringing China into the ISS program and into future exploration plans, we can and should remain the leader of the international coalition, as we push farther into space.
    Otherwise, we are in danger of losing that position, and may end up having to simply watch the ascendency of China's human spaceflight program, while struggling to find our own place.